Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Joe Mazzafro

In February 2009 I cavalierly gave Ambassador Negroponte a grade of “Incomplete” for failing to establish the prerogatives of the office and outgoing DNI Mike McConnell a “Gentleman’s B” for his performance as the second Director of National Intelligence based on the following accomplishments:

  • FISA Modernization
  • Executive Order 12333 rewrite
  • National Cyber Security Initiative
  • Development of “A” Space
  • Security Clearance Reform
  • Intelligence Community (IC) joint duty program

Reading Pat Neary’s “Intelligence Reform, 2001-2009:  Requiescat in Pace?” which appears in the March edition of Studies in Intelligence ( and attending on 06 April the Bi-Partisan Policy Center’s one day conference on the “State of Intelligence Reform” I am seeing my grades as both too generous but not necessarily the faults of the DNIs, who’s duties have become mostly ceremonial.

In a well written article, Neary (who is the DNI’s Director of Strategic Planning) argues convincingly that that the IC has improved since 9/11 but it remains fundamentally unreformed despite the intentions of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) and the establishment of the DNI five years ago.  According to Pat there are three reasons for why IRPTA (December 2004), unlike the National Security Act of 1947, has not had a reformative/transformative impact on the IC:

  • Orthogonal motives by the House and Senate towards IRTPA’s goals with indifference by two Presidents to the DNI position and cognitive dissonance within the IC about whether reform was really needed
  • The Inherent powers of cabinet secretaries over their departments (especially the Secretary of Defense)
  • Failure of the IC leadership to move the Office of the DNI (ODNI) beyond the consensus model of governance established under the Director Central Intelligence/Community Management Staff (DCI/CMS) constructs

I have observed previously that the DNI/ODNI has become ineffective because it is a schizophrenic organization: established to be a small policy and oversight staff, but to effect IC change it has had to be an execution body.  Then there is the whole issue of whether the DNI is the President’s daily intelligence briefer or the CEO of the IC.

In a crushing indictment that I fully associate myself with, Pat Neary asserts that improvements achieved in the IC since the establishment of the DNI and the fact that the nation has been safe from attack are more attributable to the near doubling of IC resources over this same time frame than to organizational change.  Said differently it’s the investment of resources that has made the difference in IC performance and not more centralized or cogent management of the IC by the DNI.

Speaking at the Conference on the State of Intelligence Reform, former DDNI and CIA Director Mike Hayden contended, without referring to the Neary piece, that establishing the DNI position freed him to do his job of running the CIA, but he was silent on why the CIA struggles against the DNI being seen as the nation’s senior intelligence officer or the DNI’s effort to manage in a macro way how Langley interacts with the rest of the IC.  This observation, which is implicitly based on CIA primacy, also begs the question of what has the DNI position done for the other 15 members of the IC individually or collectively?

Speaking to this same audience and without reference to but in response to the points made in the Neary article, Mike McConnell boldly called for establishing a Department [or Agency] of National Intelligence with a tenured secretary or director who cannot be removed during the course of his or her term (e.g., Federal Reserve Chairman, FB I Director).  McConnell says IRTPA needs to be revised along these lines so the DNI has the “authority, direction, and control” to effectively run the IC.  Today’s situation he contents makes the governance and leadership of the IC dependent on personalities and good will.

After jocularly thanking reporter Walter Pincus for his “read ahead” column about Neary’s points on IC reform in the 06 April edition of the Washington Post, current DNI Denny Blair told this same conference that intelligence reform is essentially a work in progress.  Without further reference to either the Neary article or the Pincus story about it, the DNI then went on to say there are three things in the course of the next five years that would make U.S. intelligence activities better:

  • Creating a cadre of joint leaders who are capable of working together
  • Fully integrating covert action with other tools of national power
  • Integrating collection and analysis of information with “relentless” sharing of intelligence

The DNI’s remarks, however, failed to address the seminal point raised by Neary or the questions asked of him by a conference attendee:  is a DNI actually necessary to any of these three things being achieved?  When asked directly about McConnell’s recommendation to create a Department of Intelligence, Admiral Blair tried to deflect the question by responding “I’m pretty busy trying to work with what I have” leaving us all to wonder if what he has is sufficient for making the DNI an effective position in terms of the metrics he just articulated.

For me the answer is clear that the DNI has neither sufficient influence over the IC nor does the position have adequate executive authority to bring about any of the three things Admiral Blair says the IC needs to focus on to improve IC performance.  I base this conclusion on the inability of the DNI to bring about comparatively easy IC enterprise improvements such as: a common human resource/pay system; community based training; clearance processing reform; centralized acquisition; and control of the IC budget.  The fact the CIA Director can publicly stare down the DNI on the authority to name overseas Chief of Stations and win tells the other national IC agencies that  their leadership can also successfully challenge DNI direction.

Five years into its existence with an existential violent jihadist threat to national security the ODNI has devolved into being the equivalent of the “Better Business Bureau” of the IC where best practices can be registered and complaints deposited but with no real authority to do anything about either one. Like the Better Business Bureau, the DNI is a creature of what the IC agencies can come to consensus on without impacting the member agencies prerogatives or costing them real money. I suppose all this makes me an advocate for establishing a Department [I prefer Bureau] of Intelligence, but three letters keep me from rushing to support Mike McConnell here - - - D H S!

That’s what I think; what do you think?  

Share Your Thoughts:

My hope for the DNI institution was one which would connect the dots, draw a complete, cohesive, and final picture of an intelligence objective. It should be a conduit of intelligence between agencies. DNI should be structured and run in like manner as the JCS. It requires a more militaristic management style than a civilian style. That approach would bring order and better focus on its stated mission.

Thanks Lynn! Virtually everybody I have heard on this subject with a DoD background says IRPTA needs to be more Goldwaters/Nichols like. The push back, with some merit but also from those who do not favor a centrally directed IC for a variety of reasons, is Goldwaters/Nichols had a hard enough time getting traction with all the services in a single department ------ and the IC is spread over six departments. That is a reasonable argument to a point. The point being 80% of the IC resides in a single department DOD. In my view a Goldwaters/Nichols treatment of the IC can work ----- if the President and the Congressional leadership want it to


You've nailed it pretty well. The value-added of DNI has been and is very low. They are too large by far, the assigned staff too loyal to their home organizations, their powers limited (legislation and policy notwithstanding), often clueless and unable to cause any real change. By contrast, the DCI staff was relatively small and nimble, albeit a tad too CIA-centric. A DNI with real oversight and management authorities managing an organization of 120 competent staffers would do a far better job.

Morrie, thanks ---- I appreciate your feedback and obviously agree with your take on the DNI situation. To add a bit more, I believe the DNI position/function is now structurally set (Pat Neary does a gret job of describing this)to the point where no DNI no matter how skilled a leader or manager could make meaningful change. jm

Great piece Joe. From my low perch, I've also seen a lot of navel-gazing and in-house second-guessing by influential mid-tier leaders on the ODNI staff. These folks grew up in the various IC agencies and the DoD, so I've come to wonder after five years of high expectations and nearly inconsequential results if their heart is really invested in the task of executing a muscular ODNI charter -- even in those places where they could do so through programmatic design, in-depth budget oversight, policy formulation or direct action to pull agencies together on common challenges. And often the bureaucratic rigidity has been been astonishing. A recent example is the ill-considered move to terminate uGov services on the grounds that "ODNI is not in the run-and-operate business." If taken to its logical extension, this same bureaucratic formulation would have ODNI terminating ICES (aka Intelink) -- one of the rare IC/DoD-wide success stories of the last decade-plus. I'm inclined to sympathize with Admiral Blair -- if he wants to get the most out of what he's got, I believe he needs to get his folks out of the blue-folder-shuffling business and into the direct hands-on innovation, programmatic design/shaping and acquisition reform businesses. Aloha, Dave

The DNI was created so that intel will be shared among agencies and so our country will be better
positioned to detect another 9/11. Negroponte was a farce, and we must get seroius about getting a system that works. Our nation can not afford screw ups, and hopefully the creation of the ODNI will be, in time, a real lifesaver


As a supporter of the DNI Concept from the getgo, I both share your frustration about what the DNI has not achieved and understanding of what it is capable of --- getting the IC all pulling in the same direction to improve national security. That said I remember those who argued against the establishment of the DNI said it would likely become a needless layer of bureaucry . Sadly to date those voices have been proven right. joemaz

The dni has done a lot with little. For those who say it has done nothing, they're wrong. Without the dni we would not have common ic wide analytic standards, improved tradecraft and training, and ic wide collaboration platforms. For those who say the dni position is working, they're wrong. The mandate does not match the authority. The needed reforms on technology, separate ic networks, stovepipes, and culture issues will only be resved through a strong dni. At this point, I'm inclined to support mcconnel's call for a department with clear authority. Too many bandaid solutions to the community so far.